By Cari Cole
People, and most often –other musicians, sometimes poke fun at singers for being protective (or fussy) about their voices. Okay, then — go on. You get up and sing without making a fool of yourself. Ha.
Singing is demanding. It’s not an instrument you can press down on a key or a fret, and the same note comes out every time. Or maybe you can for awhile and then all of a sudden, it goes rogue. What used to be easy, is now unpredictable and inconsistent. And it freaks you out. Yep, there’s that.
Then there’s the reality that for the most part, it’s pretty individual. What some people peg as great voices, others think are passé. A quirky voice can be endearing to some, a raspy voice is sexy, a clear voice ~ enchanting… Some like polish, some like rawness. And for singers, it’s tempting to get sidetracked by sounding like what’s “most popular”, but risk losing your unique sound. It’s tricky.
Then there’s what I see (and experience daily) as a vocal coach, vocal producer and arranger. Which is, that no matter how good a singer is in their genre, most are only using half of their ability. And when I coax it out of them with vocal production techniques, they instantly become better singers moving towards their true potential. And I love this kind of work, because it’s really rewarding to help a singer sit more in their own saddle and command that vocal respect ;).
How do you gauge your vocal potential? And are you reaching it? Are you close? Far? Did you even realize you had one?
The good news is that wherever you are, there is further to go, and it may be just around the corner.
When developing a singer’s full potential, I look at 3 feats that all influence this kind of an achievement.
The 3 Pillars of Vocal Potential.
Pillar 1: Technical
This pillar is all skill. Whether you know it or not, you have a technique to the way you sing. And it either makes it harder or easier for your voice. The goal, naturally, is to make it easier. That’s where your technical skill comes into play. On the technical end, the crazy thing about your voice, is that it is an instrument that lives inside your body — and there’s no messing with that. So besides the fact that you are playing an instrument you can’t see, you’re also subject to a whole host of things that can mess you up. And oftentimes that happens while you sleep, from what you eat, your level of stress & tension, the air you breathe or some unknown that takes you by surprise even when you are doing everything right (like allergies or reflux.)
It requires tremendous skill, consistency and know how to pull off singing night after night without screwing up. And screwing up on stage (which happens to all singers at some point) is not just a bummer, it’s delapilatingly embarrassing, and can lead to stage fright after just one episode. Multiple mess ups in the public eye lead to a paralyzing fear of the stage that many professional performers have suffered from, Pavarotti, the great tenor included. The expectation, personally and from the audience, is so high, you’re bound to fail at some point or another. No wonder stars struggle with it. That’s when your technique will either do you in (for lack of it) or save you (because you have great technique.)
Audiences are super tough on vocalists, expecting only greatness, under excusing sickness or being “under the weather.” Mostly from lack of knowledge or exposure to singers in their lives. People think singers are “born with it” and don’t realize the level of skill required (and continual attention necessary to stay in peak condition.) Whitney Houston after a long battle with drugs, was headed back to vocal training shortly before she passed away. Singers who have trained know the value, but sometimes get tired of maintaining the demands of professional singing.
If you are weak in Pillar 1, find a pro vocal coach and train your voice (please do not mess around with inexperienced coaches, it will cost you in the long run.) The right training is like lifting weights for your voice. You just get stronger, so you can do YOU, better.
**PS. Keep reading for my Top 7 Vocal Tricks that will help you totally step up your technique game!
Pillar 2: Musicianship
Singers must have good ears, and that doesn’t mean pretty ones. It means sharp ones. Ones that know the major, minor and pentatonic scales. That can hear pitch like dog’s can hear high whistles. One’s ear and music knowledge/experience come into play here.
When I was going to jazz school studying sight-singing and theory, my ear got really defined. I’d been a singer and musician for awhile at that point, but I had huge gaps in my musical knowledge. As I learned all the scales, and had to sight read on the spot, I started to hear the intervals ~ the space between the notes. That’s when it all changed. I also learned improvisation which freed me up as a singer and helped with writing melodies and live performance. Whether you study jazz or classical or contemporary, be sure to know your scales and improvise. Your audience may not know you did all that, but they can hear the difference in a singer whose musicianship is solid.
If you are weak in Pillar 2, study major, minor & pentatonic scales and through in chromatic scales for good measure. Take it up a few notches and study jazz, jazz composition and/or jazz piano or guitar.
Pillar 3: Emotion
You won’t reach your full potential without the first 2 pillars, because they pave the way to express emotion. Lots of people I’ve met along the way over the past 3 decades (producers mainly) are always trying to get more emotion out of a singer. But they make the mistake of telling the vocalist things like “just let go”, “relax”, “pretend you are at home” when recording a vocal. That’s all fine and good, but at the end of the day, if Pillar 1 and 2 are not established, no amount of “letting go” will open them up. The voice first has to be strong and flexible, secondly it has to have a good ear, and third, the experience and phrasing to deliver emotion, plus the ability to show feelings and vulnerability (what endears us to voices.) The end goal in your recordings and performances is conviction. That your vocal is “believable”, that we feel you, that you are “convincing” — and deliver the song on a silver platter.
If you are weak in Pillar 3, develop Pillar 1 & 2, and also practice phrasing. Phrasing is the key to delivering more emotion.
So the next time you worry about having more confidence, or someone tells you to “let go” or to “push your voice out more” (common from inexperienced vocal coaches), refer to these 3 Pillars to get yourself on the road to your true potential.
And don’t be so hard on yourself, just be a good student ~ learn and grow. It’s not something you can figure out on your own (nor should you.) There are experts who can help you get there much faster and without messing with your style ;).
NOW…if you want to get going on your technique right away then I’ve put together a list you can use right now that will help you step up your game!!
As one of the top celebrity vocal coaches in the world I’ve seen it all. From stars to rock legends and Grammy winners to tens of thousands of emerging independents, one thing is true:
You don’t have to have the best voice in the world, but you do have to have a good one. And one that won’t quit on you when it matters.
Here are my Top 7 Vocal Tricks to Make Your Voice Rule the World
1. Breathe Into Your Ribs (Not Just Your Abdomen).
Your abdomen is a starting point but it’s not even half of the battle. If you want to sing, you’ve got to breathe into your ribs and back. 360 degrees around your empire waist (just under your breasts) needs to expand outwards. That’s the ONLY way the diaphragm will drop and pull air into the deeper recesses of your lungs. Get your diaphragm working for you instead of against you. Go high notes!
2. Open Your Throat.
Lay your fingers across the top of your throat. Open your jaw. Did you feel your throat move down? Hopefully. Now, keeping your fingers at the top of your throat and pinch your cheeks between your teeth hard. Do it again. Did your throat move further down. It should have. That stretch is really good for opening your throat. Do it daily. Practice some of your vocal exercises with a pinch to improve laryngeal depth. It is one of the ways to open your throat before and during singing.
3. Drop Your Jaw.
Drop your jaw down when singing vowels. This brings more sound and volume to your voice. It’s magic.
4. Think Down for High Notes.
Think of your voice like an elevator. As it rises a heavy chain pulls it down (that’s your high notes). As it lowers, the chain lifts. Think of your voice like a pulley. Reach down for high notes, lifts for low notes. You’ll notice really good singers don’t lift their chins for high notes. Works like a charm.
5. Tongue Down.
Singing with a high tongue causes all kinds of problems. I’m talking about the back of your tongue. A high tongue is the number one reason for nasality, problems with transitions through the “break”, and a tight tense voice. Open your mouth, take a gentle yawn and see if you can drop the back of your tongue at the beginning of the yawn. Sometimes you have to practice it for a bit before it lowers (you can’t force it). Think about dropping your tongue before you sing and during singing to help you control your voice. Helpful suggestions to drop the tongue are: imagine you have a sock in the back of your mouth, imagine you are swallowing vitamins or drinking a glass of water…. down baby down!
6. Chest Up.
Dropping the chest as you sing is the number one cause of a lack of breath control and vocal strain. You only end up singing from your throat and losing your breath too early when your chest drops. Notice if you drop your chest near the end of the phrase and practice keeping it up all the way through the phrase (until you train it usually does). The goal is to keep a lifted chest and relaxed shoulders and neck as you sing. Watch that breath control improve almost instantaneously!
7. Stop Singing With So Many H’s.
Great voices limit their h’s or eliminate them altogether. You-hoo-hoo vs. You-oo-oo. Hint: H’s are usually added when you are singing several notes on one vowel. It’s a small adjustment that an untrained voice makes as it changes pitch. Too many h’s sound amateur and choppy. Limit your h’s and sound smoother instantly!
I hope this helps your voice rule your world, wherever you are.